Feb. 23—Scores of companies, business associations and colleges have signed a declaration of principles advocating federal immigration reform and local efforts to welcome more immigrants to Maine.
It is the first time in the state's history that a broad spectrum of interests has joined "to publicly say that for strong communities and a strong economic future, Maine needs immigrants," David Barber, business development specialist at Tyson Foods in Portland and president of the Maine Business Immigrant Coalition, said during a news conference Tuesday.
Federal immigration policies have not been updated for 30 years, Barber said. In that time, baby boomers have grown older and are leaving the workforce at the same time Maine and other states desperately need more people to sustain and grow the economy.
"Our federal immigration laws have not kept up with demographic or economic realities," Barber said.
The compact was signed by more than 80 private businesses, chambers of commerce, colleges and research institutions. The principals are asking for "common-sense policies" that strengthen Maine's economy and workforce, keep families together and promote effective law enforcement. Other companies and institutions are encouraged to sign onto the compact.
Federal policy should reflect America's long-established values and recognize the critical role immigration has played in the country's history, the compact's signatories say. It should provide fair and sensible ways for people to enter the country to work and study, join immediate family or flee persecution. There also should be a path to citizenship for those who lack legal status but have contributed by working, paying taxes and committing to fully contribute to U.S. society and culture, the compact says.
Enforcement should emphasize public safety and target serious crime, it says, adding that local law enforcement should not be focused on civil violations of federal law such as illegal immigration.
"Communities that grow and attract talent are the ones that are welcoming to all," the compact says. "We support state and local policies, practices and programs that provide a welcoming environment for immigrants and offer all residents the tools and opportunities they need to succeed."
Adele Masengo Ngoy, a fashion designer and college instructor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fled her country during a civil war in the 1990s and resettled in Portland 21 years ago. At the time, she spoke no English and had no resources but has since built her own clothing business and a nonprofit that supports immigrant women in the state.
"There are many like me in the immigrant community who have a lot of skill and a lot to bring to the table in their new home," she said.
English language instruction is the first hurdle many immigrants face coming to Maine, Ngoy added.
"I speak five languages — to learn English as an adult is a challenge," she said. "If people can be a little patient with immigrants, that can be very, very helpful for the community."
A 10-year economic development plan from the administration of Gov. Janet Mills calls for adding 75,000 workers to the state and highlights immigrants' contribution to that goal. An economic recovery plan released in November also underscored the need to make Maine more diverse and welcoming to overcome the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Economists and economic development experts have said for years that the state needs to attract new people to offset the shrinking labor pool caused by its rapidly aging population.
"It will be impossible to meet our development goals without immigrants, full stop," University of New England President James Herbert said. "The demographics are such that we are not going to be able to survive and thrive without welcoming immigrants to Maine. "
Businesses signing the compact include health care companies, breweries, banks, law firms, energy providers, food processors and manufacturers. Seven private colleges have signed, along with research institutions and trade associations representing the construction, dairy, manufacturing, tourism, grocery and food industries.
The effort comes as President Biden reverses many of the immigration policies of the former administration and pushes for sweeping reform to lower barriers for people coming to the country.
"The compact is certainly timely, because we are 30 years overdue for revamping our federal immigration laws," said Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition. "But many people who have joined this compact have worked at the state level to improve policies not only to be welcoming to immigrants but to be a place where people can succeed."